Sermon for Evensong on the Feast of St John, 27th December 2015
Isaiah 6:1-8, 1 John 5:1-12

‘On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in pear tree’

Oh, also I need to mention that the church also celebrates John the Apostle and Evangelist, on this third day of Christmas. Whether or not John the evangelist and John the apostle are one and the same, the church honours the one who on this day proclaimed Jesus as ‘the word made flesh – ‘”In the beginning was the word”, the author of St John’s Gospel, who was also known as the “disciple whom Jesus loved”. One of the sons of Zebedee, the Sons of Thunder, Boanerges, James and John.John was at the transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus. He was at the foot of the cross with Mary. John was a witness of Jesus’ resurrection and he ‘saw and believed’.

As well as John’s Gospel in the Bible there are three letters and the Revelation of St John the Divine. Nobody knows whether it is the same John who was the author of all these writings but it is certainly possible that it is. So John is a very considerable figure in the story of Christianity. I have to contrast him with the partridge, two turtledoves, and the three French hens.

Tonight, our thinking about St John is in contrast with those jollifications, with the frivolity of Christmas, the sales which started even before Christmas Day, the parties and the presents – a contrast with that side of Christmas, which has nothing wrong with it, and is something to enjoy.

I think back to when I was five years old. It was 5 o’clock in the morning on Christmas Day. I’d been awake since just after midnight, and Father Christmas crept into my bedroom, lit a cigarette and coughed just in the way that my Dad used to react to his first fag of the day, and then deposited the all important stocking, or rather pillowcase, on the bottom of my bed, which I were not allowed to touch until official waking up time or else the presents would disappear back up the chimney again, up the chimney where Father Christmas had come from.

You must keep in your mind that joyful little scene on one hand, and the rather more serious story of the apostle John on the other, who, after experiencing three years of the most extraordinary events with Jesus, the like of which have never been seen before or since, devoted the rest of his life to making sure that as many people as possible knew the story and appreciated its life-changing significance.

In his Gospel John wrote, ‘… these [things] are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, ye might have life through his name.’ (John 20:31); and in a his first Letter, just after the passage which was our second lesson, he wrote, ‘These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the Son of God.’ (1 John 5:13). This is the serious side of Christmas.

People come to church for all sorts of reasons at this time of year. Is it because we are going to have a nice time, a nice jolly time in church? I went to a Christmas morning family service this year, (not here). It was all very jolly. We sang nice carols. The minister gave a sort of walking-about sermon, asking everyone about how far they had come and what time they had got up in the morning. He didn’t actually ask when Santa Claus had turned up, but he might as well have done. We were each given two sweets, one to scoff yourself and the other to give away to a deserving friend. I’m ashamed to say that I am not quite sure what the message of the sermon was, and I couldn’t understand the Bible reading, which was translated into American by a (no doubt fine) theologian in North Carolina. I wonder what a newcomer would have made of all that.

Tonight a newcomer could be challenged again, because in our first lesson Isaiah tells a story of the Lord, (who is presumably God) sitting on a throne, high and lofty, with seraphs about, which had six wings ā€“ ‘with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet and with two they flew’. I’m not quite sure how they navigated. And then we get a bit of architecture, ‘The pivots of the threshold shook’: I have no idea what that looked like. It was a vision of God in heaven. That’s what He was supposed to look like. That was in our old Testament lesson. (Isaiah 6:1-8)

In the New Testament lesson we have had part of John’s first Letter. It says,

‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.
This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.’

So you are ‘in’, you are ‘born of God’, if you believe that Jesus is ‘the Christ.’ You are probably used to the idea of people talking about Jesus Christ as though ‘Christ’ was a sort of surname. But a surname would not have the same effect that Saint John is referring to here. Jesus is the Christ. ‘The anointed one of God’ is what it means.

In the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition it means the Messiah, the one who is going to come and save the Israelites.

Then we hear that Jesus is the son of God. ‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.’ We should love one another because we are all children of God.

We go on to hear about Jesus, the son of God, that he “came by water and blood”. No one knows what this water and blood is, unless it is a reference to his being pierced in the side on the cross by a Roman soldier. Blood and water came out of His side then, but it is not clear what the significance of water and blood is here. Perhaps it is just to emphasise his human birth.

It is difficult to understand. Not the cosy stuff that we have we waded through in an avalanche of saccharine for the last few weeks. We need some clear thought and we need some clear words.

I haven’t got instant answers, except of course to point out that like Isaiah, painting a spectacular picture of life in heaven, St John, St John ‘the Divine’, in his Book of Revelation, also depicted how things are in heaven, with cherubim and seraphim and the whole company of heaven. We now recognise them both, Isaiah and John, to have been painting a metaphorical picture, a mystical picture. To understand it is a ‘work in progress.’

God isn’t up there with a white beard above the clouds. He is perhaps better described as being ‘at the ground of our being’, at the heart of everything we do. But our language is ultimately inadequate to encompass the divine. So what is the message that we should take from these lessons today, and from our experience over the Christmas period?

I have to share with you an encounter with one of the neighbours of St Andrew’s church that I had on Christmas Eve – it certainly wasn’t Dr Marlene Robinson, you should know. As I was positioning the food-bank van outside the south door of the church and unloading comestibles into the church hall for the lunch which we put on, on Christmas Day, for those who are on their own or otherwise would miss out, out came this neighbour and remonstrated with me. ‘What are you people doing?’ he said. This is supposed to be a quiet place and a quiet day at Christmas. It’s all right for you guys to use the church for worship, but you certainly shouldn’t be plonking vans here and putting on lunches and inviting poor people to come and collect food: generally making a nuisance of yourselves.’

I started to try to explain to him that the church isn’t just a place where people worship ā€“ although that is very important ā€“ but we also have a mission to help our fellow human beings.

Indeed, as St John puts it, ‘We love him, because he first loved us.
If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?
And this commandment have we from him,
That he who loveth God love his brother also.’ (1 John 4:19-21)

St John’s first Letter contains those wonderful words. They are so true, and they should be the message which we take away from this Christmas. It’s not enough simply to be a true believer; you must do something about it too.